The history of Grammy categories is a dizzying one: Since the inaugural awards in 1959, the country/folk/roots/Americana/"ethnic" categories have gone through countless iterations and definitions. They swelled when Academy members realized that “Best Ethnic or Traditional Folk Recording” didn't describe an actual genre (1987) and shrunk when they saw that separate categories for men and women were redundant (2011). The country field began in 1959 with one award: best country & western recording; by the second ceremony, there was a “Best Performance - Folk” category, nominating none other than Harry Belafonte. At the 1962 awards, Big Bill Broonzy -- influential for his distinctive “country blues” -- was similarly nominated as a folk musician. Confusingly, the first folk categories also nominated artists from South Africa, England and Ireland, turning them into a catchall for both international song and roots-driven music made by African-Americans. A 31-year-old Ray Charles earned his fifth and sixth nominations at that same 1962 ceremony -- for Genius + Soul = Jazz (album of the year) and “Hit the Road Jack” (best rhythm & blues recording) -- but the Florida native already had his sights set on something completely different.
He’d played with what he called a “hillbilly band” in his youth, but with a brand-new record contract (and hefty advance), Charles announced in 1961 that he wanted to record country songs. The result, Modern Sounds in Country and Western Music, became an instant success, topping Billboard’s albums chart for 14 weeks. “I Can’t Stop Loving You,” written by Don Gibson in 1957 (who brought it to country charts, as did Kitty Wells), was the album’s lead single -- and topped the Hot 100 for five weeks. Charles’ version, though beefed up with a string section, was arranged almost identically to Gibson’s original, showcasing the melody over a classic country shuffle. Legend has it that Willie Nelson said, “With his recording of ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ Ray Charles did more for country music than any other artist.” The song earned three nominations at the 1963 Grammy awards -- in overall and rhythm & blues categories. He won best rhythm & blues performance, losing the other two categories to Tony Bennett. The winner for best country and western recording that year? Burl Ives.
Instead, the first successful crossover from R&B -- really, from pop at large -- into the country Grammy stronghold came from none other The Pointer Sisters. In 1974 -- before “Jump (For My Love)” and “Automatic” -- Anita Pointer penned “Fairytale,” inspired by a James Taylor cassette she’d brought out on one of the group’s early tours. After recording the single in Nashville, the group pitched it to country and western stations -- as unlikely an effort as you can imagine for a group of black women in a time when Charley Pride was still the only person to successfully challenge country radio’s homogeneity. But from the opening fiddle and slide guitar riffs to the flashes of Appalachia in the harmonies, the song was undeniably country -- and fans responded accordingly. A peak at No. 37 on the country airplay chart fueled an eventual rise to No. 13 on the Hot 100, and the group became the first African-American ensemble to perform at the Grand Ole Opry. At the 1975 Grammys (where Stevie Wonder won album of the year with Fulfillingness' First Finale), The Pointer Sisters won best country & western vocal performance, duo or group for “Fairytale” -- their first Grammy, and still the only country Grammy won by black women. Anita and Bonnie Pointer were also nominated as writers in the best country & western song category.
Ray Charles never won a country Grammy, but was eventually nominated in the best country vocal performance (male) category in 1984 for “Born to Love Me.” He’s also been omitted from the Country Music Hall of Fame, despite five entries on the Country Albums chart, 13 on Hot Country Songs including a No. 1 (“Seven Spanish Angels” with Willie Nelson), and the fact that the country mecca featured an exhibit dedicated to the legend in 2006. Outside the crossover-oriented best country collaboration with vocals category (1988-2011), which rewarded Aaron Neville and Trisha Yearwood’s cover of “I Fall to Pieces” in 1995, the only other African-American artists to win a country Grammy are Darius Rucker and Charley Pride -- both of whom are staunchly rooted in Nashville.
Given Charles’ long history of searching for a second home within the Nashville establishment, Beyonce’s quest to make the country cred of “Daddy Lessons” official was a tough one from the start. As The Pointer Sisters show, there is (some) room to cross over -- as long as you stay true to the orthodoxy of radio-friendly slide guitars and twang, something Beyoncé’s New Orleans-brassy, boot-stomping anthem definitely didn’t do. The Recording Academy’s country voters may not think Beyoncé followed the rules; the fact that she breaks them, though, is exactly what her fans love most.